Football player, business executive
Gene Washington made his name on the field as a wide receiver for the San Francisco 49ers in the 1970s, but he made his mark after leaving the gridiron, becoming one of professional football's most high-profile executives. His success reflected a philosophy that he expounded upon in a speech he gave at Stanford University in 2004 entitled "How to Make Black America Better." "If you want to compete in the real world, you're going to face a lot of ‘isms’—sexism, racism, nepotism, and you've got to be as educated as you can be," as quoted by the Daily Stanford. He pointed to the examples of business leaders such as Kenneth Chenault of American Express and Stanley O'Neal of Merrill Lynch who relied on education to become successful and wealthy. "If you want political equality, you better have some money," he continued according to the Daily Stanford. "Money is the mother's milk of politics." He concluded by encouraging young African Americans to look to these business leaders, not professional athletes, for truly inspiring role models.
Played a Decade of Professional Football
Gene Washington was born on January 14, 1947, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. After graduating from high school, he headed to California's Stanford University in part to take advantage of the school's commitment to integrate minorities into their student body. Though he was just one of 25 African-American students on a campus of 10,000,Washington blazed trails, becoming the first black member of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity as well as an All-American on the football field. As a wide receiver for the Stanford Cardinals, Washington was one of the school's most valuable players. For three games in the 1968 season, he was the game leader in receiving yards. That year, he also set the school's all-time receiving record with a total of 1,117 yards. Two decades later, when the Stanford Athletic Hall of Fame was established, Washington was inducted as a member.
After graduating in 1969, Washington entered the National Football League (NFL) professional football draft and was selected 16th overall in the first round by the San Francisco 49'ers. As a wide receiver, he again proved his merit with 1,100 receiving yards in 1970 and an average of 745 yards per season over his 49'ers career. His skill earned him repeated spots on the league's All-Star team and he played in four consecutive Pro Bowls from 1969 to 1972. In 1979, after nine years with the 49'ers, Washington was traded to Detroit. After a less than spectacular season with the Lions, he retired from professional football and moved back to California.
As a football star in California, Washington was often tapped to appear in films and televisions series. In 1972, he had a recurring role as a football player on the detective drama Banacek. The same year, he appeared on The Mod Squad. In 1974, he had another recurring role on McMillan & Wife. On the big screen, Washington played bit parts in several blaxploitation films of the 1970s including The Black Six, Black Gunn, and Lady Cocoa. In the 1980s, Washington returned to Stanford in an administrative posi- tion with the athletics department. By the early 1990s, he had risen to the position of Assistant Athletic Director. In that role, he also co-founded the school's Athletic Hall of Fame. It was also during this time that Washington befriended Stanford's then-provost, Condoleezza Rice, who went on to become the Secretary of State under George W. Bush.
Enforced Discipline and Fair Play on the Field
In 1993, Washington was hired as the Director of Football Development for NFL. That role was expanded to Director of Football Operations the following year. The position required that he move to New York City, headquarters of the NFL. By that time, he had married and divorced and his two children, Daniel and Kelly, stayed behind with their mother in California. In addition to overseeing all aspects of the game of football within the NFL, Washington's job entailed one duty that earned him a lot of derision in the sports press. He was responsible for the on-field conduct of the players. Sports writer Dan Patrick noted on ESPN. com, "It's Washington's job to monitor what's appropriate and professional versus outlandish and immature." In effect, Washington became the NFL's disciplinarian.
Working with a team of NFL officials, Washington established codes of conduct that covered everything from the height of a player's socks to his behavior in the end zone. Dancing, taunting, and slow-motion foolery were banned. Washington explained to South Coast Today, "You'd have that kind of celebration every game, every time someone scored." It not only took away from the dignity of the sport but, more importantly, wreaked havoc with live coverage where minutes of air-time costs tens of thousands of advertising dollars. Though these measures caused both fans and players to snicker that the NFL had become the "No Fun League," a move against unwarranted violence on the field brought success. "We feel there's no place in the game for extracurricular hits," Washington told The Sporting News. In response to pot shots and fighting, Washington hit back where it hurt: the players' pockets. He issued dozens of five-figure fines to players in response to unfair hits. It seemed to have worked. By 2001, the NFL reported a reduction in the number of helmet-to-helmet hits on quarterbacks.
When not monitoring players, Washington built a high profile away from the field. He joined the boards of directors of several organizations including New York Bancorp, Goodrich Petroleum Corporation, the Home Federal Savings Bank, and the National Park Foundation. In 2003, he returned to Stanford to help their business school create the NFL-Stanford Executive Education Program executives in the football league. He also began giving motivational speeches on African-American success. However, Washington received some of his most persistent celebrity due to his friendship with Rice. He accompanied her to several White House events including a 2007 dinner with Queen Elizabeth II. "Talking to the Secretary of State and the Queen of England, that's not like talking to first-round draft picks in the green room," he quipped to NFL. com. "That's nice, of course. But as we say in Alabama, this was really high cotton." Whether rubbing shoulders with world leaders or overseeing the nation's football players, Washington too fulfills this old Southern saying which translates as doing very well indeed.
At a Glance …
Born on January 14, 1947, in Tuscaloosa, AL; children: Kelly and Daniel. Education: Stanford University, 1969.
Career: San Francisco 49ers, wide receiver, San Francisco, CA, 1969-78; Detroit Lions, wide receiver, Detroit, MI, 1979; Stanford University, assistant athletic director, mid-1980s-1993; National Football League (NFL), director of football development, 1993; director of football operations, 1994-.
Memberships: Goodrich Petroleum Corporation, director, 2003-; Delia's Inc., director, 2006-; National Park Foundation, board member; New York Bancorp Inc., director; Home Federal Savings Bank, director.
Awards: Sports Illustrated, Most Influential Minorities in Sports, ranked 29th, 2003, 25th, 2004; Stanford Athletic Hall of Fame, inductee.
Addresses: Office—National Football League Inc., 280 Park Ave., New York, NY 10017.
Sporting News, November 21, 1994.
"NFL Well Represented at State Dinner," NFL.com, www.nfl.com/nflnetwork/story/10172460 (July 20, 2007).
"NFL Head Stresses Individual Responsibility in ‘Black America,’" Daily Stanford,http://daily.stanford.edu/article/2004/2/27/nflHeadStressesIndividualResponsibilityInBlackAmerica (July 20, 2007).
"Washington Hits Hard, Plays Fair," ESPN.com, http://espn.go.com/talent/danpatrick/s/2002/1022/1449438.html (July 20, 2007).
"Where to Draw the Line in the NFL," South Coast Today,http://archive.southcoasttoday.com/daily/12-01/12-10-01/c12sp113.htm (July 20, 2007).
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